ChatGPT is Bad at Writing, Full Stop

It’s happened, folks. I have been ChatGPTsplained.

The unpleasant exchange took place on a social media site whose name I shan’t mention. It went something like this (paraphrased):

Me: Working on a white paper this morning, which prompted me to shake my cane and yell at capitalism [link]

Them: Get ChatGPT to give you a rough draft, then you can embellish and edit.

Me: I’ve played with ChatGPT enough to know it can’t be trusted with the kind of writing I do.

Them: Yes, but it goes give very good structure that you can then edit to your own needs!

…No. It doesn’t.

ChatGPT produces generalized Internet filler content middle-manager waffle. I’m well-versed in generalized Internet filler content middle-manager waffle. I began my writing business in 2009 selling generalized Internet filler content middle-manager waffle.

I have since moved on from generalized Internet filler content middle-manager waffle, but I still know it when I see it. And it’s what ChatGPT produces – only not as well as the humans who currently do it for a fraction of a cent per word.

ChatGPT: Nobody, Writing Nothing, for an Audience of No One

As an example, I chose a topic on which I produced generalized Internet filler content for so many years, and in such vast quantities, that the chances of my actual writing being included in ChatGPT’s training data are quite high:

What are the elements of negligence?

ChatGPT’s response:

Negligence is a legal concept that is used to determine whether a person’s actions or inactions can be considered a breach of duty of care owed to another person, resulting in damages or harm to that person. The elements of negligence are:

  1. Duty: The defendant (the person accused of negligence) must have owed a duty of care to the plaintiff (the person who suffered harm) to act with reasonable care under the circumstances.
  2. Breach of duty: The defendant must have breached their duty of care by failing to act with reasonable care, such as by failing to take necessary precautions or acting recklessly.
  3. Causation: The defendant’s breach of duty must have caused or contributed to the plaintiff’s harm or injury.
  4. Proximate cause: The harm suffered by the plaintiff must have been a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the defendant’s actions or inactions.
  5. Damages: The plaintiff must have suffered actual harm or damages as a result of the defendant’s breach of duty and the harm must be quantifiable and compensable.

Even this requires editing before submission. It’s not wrong, but it’s not quite right, either. “Reckless” behavior is typically treated separately from “negligent” behavior, for instance. “Proximate cause” is a type of causation, not a separate element (“causation” includes both cause in fact, or “but-for” cause, and proximate cause or “foreseeability”).

This example also has no clear audience – no group of people that would find it suited to their purposes. An ordinary person who has been injured is likely to stumble a bit over the wording, especially the repetition of words that don’t describe the same legal concept (“damages” and “damage,” for instance). Law students are going to be misled, figuring out very quickly that ChatGPT’s formulation was a waste of their time. Lawyers wouldn’t ask this question in the first place.

But maybe ChatGPT just needs some guidance as to audience? I asked.

Give me a definition of negligence appropriate for a person who has recently been injured.

ChatGPT’s response:

Negligence is a legal term used to describe a situation where someone failed to take reasonable care, resulting in harm or injury to another person. In other words, if someone was not careful enough and their actions or inactions caused you harm or injury, you may be able to pursue a legal claim for negligence. Negligence can take many forms, such as inattentiveness, carelessness, or recklessness, and it can result in a wide range of injuries or damages. If you have recently been injured and believe that someone else’s negligence was the cause, it is important to consult with a qualified attorney to understand your legal options and potential remedies.

This is even more waffle-y than the first. It fails to define negligence in any but the most basic terms. In fact, I’d bet anyone asking what “negligence” is already knows it involves one person failing to take due care and someone else getting hurt as a result. This reads like every final filler paragraph on every law firm website in America – which is probably what it is.

But Can ChatGPT Write The Thing I Got Splained For?

The piece I got ChatGPTsplained about wasn’t law firm filler content about negligence. It was 2400 words on dynamic QR codes, inflation, and printing costs.

So I asked ChatGPT to “give me 2400 words on dynamic QR codes, inflation, and printing costs.” It gave me 685, which I’m assuming has to do with the limits of the tool.

The first paragraph was utterly worthless:

Dynamic QR codes, inflation, and printing costs are three seemingly disparate topics that have a surprising amount in common. In this article, we will explore the ways in which these three topics intersect and how they can impact businesses and consumers alike.

This is filler. 100% fluff. This is every first-year college writing student desperately hoping to make their word count. This is a waste of ChatGPT’s time to generate and my time to read. Yet here we are.

[The rest of ChatGPT’s effort, unedited, is here.]

The rest wasn’t much better. Among ChatGPT’s most common writing problems:

Consistently opening a paragraph with one statement or topic, then completing it by discussing a different topic or idea. For example, ChatGPT begins a paragraph with “Another potential challenge with the use of dynamic QR codes is the impact of inflation on their effectiveness,” then dedicates the rest of the paragraph (three additional sentences) to a general definition of inflation.

Connecting ideas that aren’t actually connected. ChatGPT made several references to “using dynamic QR codes to manage inflation.” Each of these treated “dynamic QR codes” as if they are a government policy approach rather than what they actually are (a barcode).

Failing to distinguish between a specific concept and its general category. We saw this above when ChatGPT failed to grasp that “proximate cause” is a subheading of “causation” generally. ChatGPT also repeatedly used the phrase “dynamic QR codes” when discussing things any QR code can do, like include a website URL. If you’re trying to sell the concept of dynamic QR code use specifically (as the piece I was drafting did), using “dynamic” when you mean “all QR codes generally” undermines that effort.

Suggesting things that aren’t real or just won’t work. According to ChatGPT, one problem with using dynamic QR codes “to manage inflation” is that hackers might create fake ones to “generate misleading data.” While hackers can, I assume, actually do that, I struggle to imagine a real-world reason why any hacker would bother. Faking a government-issued QR code to steal your personal data? Sure. Faking one to poison a government data set on inflation? …why?

Offering “structure” that isn’t. When I started this experiment, I did not expect ChatGPT to provide a result that so neatly kneecaps the ‘splanation that ChatGPT would provide “very good structure.” But it did, in the final paragraph: “In conclusion, dynamic QR codes, inflation, and printing costs are three topics that are interconnected in complex ways.”

Like the opening paragraph, this sentence is first-year writing student waffle, but that’s not even its worst sin. Its worst sin is that the rest of the piece did not discuss this. The rest of the piece doesn’t deal with the interconnectedness of these topics, much less the “complexity” thereof.

The purpose of a conclusion is to summarize what was said so the reader has a clear, concise takeaway – a one-sentence built-in personal Cliffs Notes, if you will. ChatGPT’s attempt at a conclusion is akin to me ending this post with “In conclusion, many lawyers are left-handed.” It’s true, but it never came up in what you just read, and it’s going to confuse you.

In short: ChatGPT saved me no time at all. It wasted my time and annoyed me. Because it’s not good at writing.

No Worries Then, Right? …Right?

ChatGPT can’t do what I do. Not even close. But that doesn’t mean it can’t replace any writers at all.

I do think ChatGPT will come for generalized Internet filler content and soon. My request to “write a landing page for an auto parts store” gave me copy equal to or better than what I could already order for a penny per word from some agencies:

Welcome to our extensive selection of high-quality auto parts at competitive prices. At our store, we have everything you need to keep your vehicle running smoothly and safely. Our inventory includes a wide variety of parts for all types of vehicles, from brakes and engine components to suspension and electrical systems.

Whether you’re a professional mechanic or a DIY enthusiast, you’ll find everything you need at our store. Our knowledgeable staff is always available to help you find the right parts for your vehicle, answer any questions you may have, and provide expert advice on installation and maintenance.

Find and replace “our store” with the name of your store, drag and drop into your website editor, click Publish. Done. No additional underpaid humans required.

But ChatGPT couldn’t give me a single usable sentence in 685 words for a project of the type I turn out every single week. When I asked it to discuss a topic for which I recently submitted an academic book chapter proposal, ChatGPT spent 403 words being merrily 100% dead-on wrong.

Tl;dr ChatGPT only sounds like it can write to people who can’t write. My advice, to paraphrase Mark Twain: “Tis better to write nothing and let people think you are a fool than to copy-paste from ChatGPT and remove all doubt.”

You are, in fact, paying a human if you drop a tip in the tip jar here. Thank you.


Inflation is Enshittifying Restaurant Menus

I have officially reached grumpy old age.

It wasn’t when I found my first gray hair. It wasn’t when doctors started signing me up for tests ending in -ogram or -oscopy. It was yesterday, when I found myself kvetching with several friends about how QR codes are replacing printed menus in restaurants.

Let’s get Grandma to bed. But first, a word on QR code restaurant menus. Because, as it turns out, they’re not merely becoming more popular to remind us 40somethings that our time has passed.

This morning, I ran across a piece discussing how businesses can cut printing costs by using QR codes. Even as a writer, I don’t typically think of printing costs as a significant budget item. Even the estimate that printing costs can run north of $700 per employee per year seems like small potatoes.

Then I remembered that printing costs have been rising faster than overall inflation ever since pandemic-related supply chain issues cramped the entire printing industry. Fair. (I’m starting to feel like inflation rates of every good/service, taken individually, are rising faster than overall inflation. But that’s another post.)

But printing costs aren’t the only form of inflation placing pressure on restaurants to find alternatives to print menus. Inflation in the restaurant industry is also pushing costs north. And every time a restaurant raises its menu prices, it needs new menus – or it needs to cross out all the old prices and write in the new higher ones.

Enter QR codes, which solve both the printing problem and the “make someone sit down with a Sharpie and change all the $9.99s to $12.99s” problem. For restaurants. And by “solve,” I mean “externalize onto customers.” As with so many problems in so many industries, the introduction of technology doesn’t so much address a root issue as force consumers to bear the brunt of it.

Digital menu prices can be changed with a couple keystrokes, and they leave no evidence of change. In the name of making information more readily available to customers, QR-code menus obscure the fact that prices are rising. They also cut out a small but growing segment of customers, who – surprisingly – are more likely to be in their 20s than their 80s.

Not to reach AARP-card levels of elderly self-righteousness, but: There’s something to Team Geriatric Millennial’s dislike of QR code menus. Our instinct that replacing physical menus with QR codes represents a form of “enshittification” is dead on. QR code menus are a symptom of end-stage capitalism’s descent into shit that serves no one.

Now get off my lawn.

Granny needs her Geritol: leave a tip, please.

“I Am” Songs and Structural Villainy in American Musicals

Most American musicals identify the hero and the villain through two distinct types of songs: The “I Want” song and the “I Am” song, respectively.

They’re both pretty much exactly what they say they are. “I Want” songs focus on something the hero wants. It’s often a pretty vague “want,” such as “I want adventure” or “I want to be Not Here.” For example:

Villains, by contrast, tend to get “I Am” songs. These are also as advertised: It’s a song about who the villain is or what sort of obstacle they’re placing in the path of the hero. For example:

  • Poor Unfortunate Souls” from The Little Mermaid (“They weren’t kidding when they called me, well, a witch”)
  • Be Prepared” from The Lion King (“It’s great that we’ll soon be connected/To a king who’ll be all-time adored”)
  • Dentist!” from Little Shop of Horrors (“Son, be a dentist…you have a talent for causing things pain”)

Some of the best “I Am” songs parallel the “I Want” songs. For instance, in The Lion King, both the “I Want” song and the “I Am” song focus on the singer’s desire to be king, but in utterly different ways: Simba’s is full of big-idea potential, while Scar’s is an image of a world under total control. Similarly, both “Part of Your World” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” focus on want and solution, respectively. In a sense, both sets of songs set up a desire and propose the wrong solution, respectively.

So much for musicals in which the villain is another person. But what if the villain is structural?

These musicals, too, tend to give their villains an “I Am” song. Since there is no individual villain to sing the “I Am” song, however, the “I Am” tends to get expressed through other characters – often, those who have themselves fallen victim to the lies required to maintain the structural villainy.

In these musicals, the “I Want” and “I Am” songs tend to fall much closer together. In Hairspray, for example, they fall back to back. The show opens with “Good Morning Baltimore,” introducing heroine Tracy Turnblad and her dream of being a famous dancer (“I know every step, I know every song, I know there’s a place where I belong….”). It’s followed immediately by “The Nicest Kids in Town,” the theme to the Corny Collins Show – the setting in which the show’s major conflict, over segregation, takes place.

The villain in “The Nicest Kids in Town” isn’t any of the dancers on the show – not even Amber von Tussle, who functions as an antagonist throughout the musical. It’s segregation, as driven home by the song’s bridge:

Nice white kids who like to lead the way,

And once a month we have our Negro Day!

And I’m the man who keeps it spinnin’ round,

Mr. Corny Collins with the latest, greatest Baltimore sound

It’s easy to see the villain of Hairspray not as segregation writ large, but as the individual character of Velma von Tussle – a reading that Velma’s song, “(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs,” would seem to support, as it functions as an “I Am” song.

Yet “Miss Baltimore Crabs” is less an “I Am” song than an “I Was” song, focusing entirely on Velma’s past success. The song lacks any indication that the singer intends to persist in their villainy (indeed, it underscores how Velma’s villain opportunities are now past), nor does it offer a wrong solution to the hero. “The Nicest Kids in Town” does both, entrenching a segregated show format while also suggesting to Tracy that the way to become the dance star she wishes to be is to leverage her whiteness to access opportunities like The Corny Collins Show that are denied to black Baltimore teens.

Disney’s Encanto brings the “I Want” and “I Am” songs even closer together by placing most of the “I Am” song with the musical’s hero. Encanto’s opener, “The Family Madrigal,” features heroine Mirabel singing about who each of her family members is – defined exclusively through each family member’s magical gift, the very thing that obscures their individual personhood within the family and burdens them individually.

The “I Am” moment of the song is once again driven home by the bridge, sung by Mirabel’s Abuela:

We swear to always help those around us,

And earn the miracle that somehow found us.

The town keeps growing, the world keeps turning,

But work and dedication will keep the miracle burning,

And each new generation will keep the miracle burning.

Abuela sings the bridge not because she is the villain, but because she is the character who has fallen most deeply for the lies expressed by the villain: That each family member matters because of their magical gift, not because of who they are as a person; that miracles must be “earned”; and that “work and dedication” rather than love are the foundation for the “miracle” that is the mutual safety and support of the town.

Mirabel’s “I Want,” meanwhile, is expressed not by any direct statements in the song, but by Mirabel’s constant dodging of the town children’s question: “But what’s your gift?” Mirabel wants to be defined by her family’s magical gifts precisely because she doesn’t have one of her own. (As in many musicals, our heroine doesn’t clearly state her “I Want” until the “call to adventure” at the end of Act I – here, when Mirabel sings “Waiting on a Miracle.”)

At least two other songs in Encanto feel like candidates for “I Am” songs: “Surface Pressure,” sung by Mirabel’s sister Luisa and “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” which is entirely about Bruno’s supposed villainy.

“Surface Pressure” fails the “I Am” test by breaking into Luisa’s dream of an alternative world in the bride, one that is neither an expression of an intent to continue in her current path nor offers a wrong solution to Mirabel: “But wait, if I could shake the crushing weight of expectations would that free some room up for joy?”

“We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” by contrast, does function as an “I Am” song – but the villain isn’t Bruno, who doesn’t actually have any lines in the song. Rather, the villain is once again the “crushing weight of expectations” heaped onto one of the Madrigals (here, Bruno) by others’ interpretation of his magical gift (“it’s a heavy lift with a gift so humbling….”). Stories describing Bruno as the villain are a red herring; the villain of the piece is, again, the belief that it is what one can do rather than who one is that makes one lovable (or not).

The restructuring of “I Want” and “I Am” songs to highlight structural rather than individual villains is perhaps one of the most interesting elements of modern musicals – and one that offers a whole new world of opportunities for musical storytelling.

Look at this tip jar, isn’t it neat, if you put a tip in my collection’s complete….